On Buena Vista Social Club, the album that inspired the wave of interest in Cuban music that he's riding in on, Barbarito Torres participates on only four tunes. And in the subsequent Wim Wenders documentary--though he was especially charismatic, wearing a bushy mustache and noodling on his lute behind his back--he could legitimately be called a bit player. But on his superb U.S. recording debut, Havana Cafe (Havana Caliente), and in Chicago performances earlier this year, his music has proved to be as rich and dynamic as any of his compatriots'. Like guitarist Eliades Ochoa, the Buena Vista star whose hotly anticipated Chicago debut was canceled in a display of muscle flexing by the INS last month, Torres plays guajira music, a stripped-down, countrified strain of son, and while he's something of a ham, his rhythmically bold improvisations are about substance, not flash. On the album his sweetly lyrical playing tangles with the spare percussion of Pedro Vargas Oliva, the upright bass of Victor Villa, the acoustic guitar of Nilso Arias, the tres (a small Cuban guitar) of Onelio Arias, and vocals by Nilso, Villa, Conchita Torres, and Sonia Perez Cassola; for touring he added brash trumpeter Robin Martinez to the lineup. Last month at House of Blues the group opened for Los Van Van, whose music is more modern and decidedly more urbane, but Torres and company had no problem converting the crowd. They made classics like Arsenio Rodriguez's "Corazon de chivo" and the Celina Gonzalez vehicle "¡Que viva chango!" (Torres served as Gonzalez's musical director for many years) sound just as contemporary as Los Van Van's most recently minted electric numbers. Torres was also joined--as he will be here--by singer Pio Leyva, another Buena Vista alum, who sings a couple songs on Havana Cafe. Leyva, now 82, has lost some of the blustery finesse in evidence on his recent 50s retrospective Yo bailo con ella (Tumbao Cuban Classics), but he's so charming you probably won't notice. Saturday, 7 and 10 PM, Old Town School of Folk Music, 4544 N. Lincoln; 773-728-6000. Peter Margasak
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Luis Mallo.